Look behind you prime minister. Big set piece rebellions, disgruntled backbenchers and lurking 'Big Beasts', David Cameron has been given a rocky ride by his own party this year – and it does not look like 2013 will be any easier.
Conservative MPs conspired to kill off House of Lords reform, banded together with Labour to send the prime minister a symbolic eurosceptic message on the Brussels budget, fumed at suggestions prisoners may have to be given the vote and split over the Leveson report.
Coupled with big signature rebellions in the Commons, Tory MPs dissatisfied with the prime minister’s leadership of the party or with individual policy decisions are not shy about speaking out.
This year saw Nadine Dorries launch her now infamous “arrogant posh boys” attack on Cameron and George Osborne and it is not difficult to find other backbenchers who are willing to criticize their leader, if not perhaps in such colourful language and with such vehemence.
As well as the usual suspects, the 'Big Beasts' of the party also started to stir. Former leadership candidate David Davies teamed up with Liam Fox to articulate a more right wing message for the party – distinct from Cameron’s more deliberately liberal approach.
Ominously for Cameron, next year does not look likely to see a warming of relations between No.10 and the backbenches, with several confrontations penciled in for January.
First up will be Cameron’s speech on the EU. His “tantric” teasing of his backbenchers by delaying the speech has raised expectations and most will settle for nothing less than a pledge to hold an in or out referendum.
In the same month the coalition will introduce legislation to allow gay couples to marry. Cameron will allow his MPs a free vote, but with over 100 Tories expected to oppose the plan the Bill will expose a deep rift in the party. The split will gift Labour a chance to rubbish Cameron’s claims to have detoxified his party.
The repercussions of Leveson will roll on, with Tory MPs in favour of the statutory underpinning of press regulation, a move opposed by the prime minister, unlikely to keep quiet.
And of course, there is the small issue of the economy.
Clacton MP Douglas Carswell says the internal strife could be solved if the government beings to show signs it is pursuing a “coherent and credible free market policy” on the economy and addresses backbench concerns about the EU – starting with the prime minister’s speech.
“I think in order to be credible it will have to make it clear there will be a referendum it also needs to make it clear in that referendum an option will be in or out,” he says.
“If we get it right on the two big fundamental issues of the day all the other stuff will melt away. Those are the bread and butter issues that decide elections.”
He predicts unless Cameron can show he means business on the economy and Europe other disagreements, such as same-sex weddings, will continue to “flare up” and take on a significance they would not otherwise have.
“I find the issue of equal marriage the whole row deeply depressing,” Carswell says. “People I respect are fighting each other. I think both sides need to take a deep breath and remember Christmas is a season of good cheer, lets get it right on the two big issues.”
Tory MPs fear that the biggest winner from the government's approach to the EU and game marriage will be Ukip - which has the power to deny Cameron an overall majority at the next election if it snatches a few votes in marginal seats.
Recent polls have shown the anti-EU party led by Nigel Farage securing record levels of support, largely at the expense of the Tories.
Carswell puts Farage’s success to more than Europe. “I think the anti-politician mood, the anti-mainstream mood, can only really be dealt with by making parties open source,” he says.
He urges the Conservative leadership to embrace political change including open primaries and the introduction of a recall bill. The Tory party can no longer ben run as “private clubs from the 1950s”
Neutralising Farage as an electoral threat will be a real test for Cameron, as Ukip will hope to continue its advance next year with the goal of winning the 2014 European elections.
The prime minister could be in for a tough 2013. And that's before mentioning the problems Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband may cause him.
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